The Gilded Age painter devoted to ‘scenes of every-day life around him’

“I believe the man who will go down to posterity is the man who paints his own time and the scenes of every-day life around him,” Childe Hassam said in 1892, three years after this Boston-born Impressionist painter settled permanently in New York City.

“New York Winter,” 1900

Painting scenes of everyday life around him is exactly what Hassam did for the next four decades. From his first studio at Fifth Avenue and 17th Street, he began depicting random moments in the Gilded Age city. His Impressionist style brilliantly captured light and color: of gaslit lamps, snowy sidewalks, rain-slicked umbrellas, and the sky at the “blue hour” just before twilight.

“Messenger Boy,” 1900

Perhaps his best-known works are urban landscapes near Washington Square, Union Square, and Madison Square, and Ephemeral New York has posted many examples over the years. But ultimately, Hassam was interested in what he termed “humanity in motion.”

“The Manhattan Club,” 1891

“‘There is nothing so interesting to me as people,’ he remarked in 1892,” according to an article from Smithsonian Magazine. “’I am never tired of observing them in every-day life, as they hurry through the streets on business or saunter down the promenade on pleasure. Humanity in motion is a continual study to me.’”

“Broadway and 42nd Street,” 1902

Hassam’s subjects engage in habits and rituals New Yorkers still take part in, and they occupy a city that looks familiar to us today. Despite transportation options like elevated trains, streetcars, and horse-drawn cabs, Gotham was a city of walkers, then and now.

“Old Bottleman,” 1892

New York was also a class-structured city in Hassam’s era, as it remains today. Elegant men and women enjoy leisure time while cab drivers, messengers, doormen, vendors, and other workers earn a living around them.

“View of Broadway and Fifth Avenue,” 1890

Critics then and now have pointed out that Hassam’s work lacks the rough edges and raw social realist energy of many of his contemporaries. “In New York, for example, he ignored the new heterogeneity and hardships, romanticized symbols of modernism such as skyscrapers, and emphasized fast-fading Gilded Age gentility,” states Boston’s Gardner Museum.

“Rainy Day, Fifth Avenue,” 1893

Hassam had a simple answer for his critics and those in the art world who latched onto trends. According to the Smithsonian Magazine article, he told a critic in 1901: “I can only paint as I do and be myself. Subjects suggest to me a color scheme and I just paint.”

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11 Responses to “The Gilded Age painter devoted to ‘scenes of every-day life around him’”

  1. Robin Gosnall Says:

    Reminds me of Pierre Adolphe Valette’s paintings of Manchester.

  2. Tom Dulski Says:

    Breathtaking work from an American Impressionist MASTER.

  3. VirginiaLB Says:

    Wonderful post and pictures. Two questions: What are those red umbrella-like things in ‘View of Broadway and Fifth Ave”? And what is a bottleman? Google did not enlighten me. Last, a pox upon the Gardner Museum and their tiresome pc judgment of Childe Hassam.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I wish I knew what those umbrella things are, I couldn’t figure it out either. I too had never heard the term “bottleman,” but it might just be Hassam’s own term for a man who collected bottles.

      As for the Gardner Museum, I echo the sentiments of other commenters here who decry the politicization of everything.

  4. velovixen Says:

    I love his comment, “Subjects suggest to me a color scheme and I just paint it.” It makes me think of Michelangelo’s “You just chip away anything that doesn’t look like David.”

    His works may have lacked “raw socialist realist energy” but they revealed a different kind of energy that comes from within his subjects.

  5. Bill Wolfe Says:

    Thanks for another wonderful entry about a painter. I’ve learned about many new (to me) painters here, which I appreciate. Although I know Hassam, these paintings are new to me. I especially loved the first one, featuring the winter scene.

  6. countrypaul Says:

    “His works may have lacked ‘raw socialist realist energy’”….

    Does everything have to be about politics? These are really wonderful paintings – period. To borrow a line from Dwight Twilley*, “What it means is what it means is what it really means.”

    I had heard of Childe Hassam (can you imagine growing up with that name?!?) but this is the first I’ve seen of his works. Thank you for the excellent introduction.

    * Source: his song, “10,000 Scuba Divers Dancing”

  7. JGreenspan Says:

    Wonderful post. Another walking tour you’d do beautifully – based on all of these NYC artists’ pieces you’ve written.


  8. Carol Ann Siciliano Says:

    I’ve always enjoyed Childe Hassam’s work. Thank you so much for collecting them in one place and enlivening them with your commentary! I believe in capturing everyday moments too — how lucky we are to see Hassam’s interpretation of NYC. Terrific post.

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